Sunday, June 19, 2011

Dining with the Rich, p.II - "Opportunity"

I think there are two related issues between the liberal and conservative perspectives on inequality and opportunity in America:

- the degree to which extant inequities in power structures tend to remain, if not solidify without intervention. In the extreme*, this might require revolutionary, literal redistribution of wealth. At the margins, it might simply means provision of quality libraries. The trouble is the massive squishy middle where there are a variety of interventions that can promote self-efficacy. Yet to be comprehensive and not tied to grab-bag charity work, a guarantee of equal access can be practicably made only by the government. The most obvious example of this is public education, which can then extend in terms of real efficacy to any variety of programmatic responses such as early childhood, parenting classes, childcare support, drug treatment, counseling, etc. (all of which of course must prove themselves but there is no reasons why they can't be completely effective in theory and there are indeed many such examples of effective programs).

*I'm thinking of countries where a kleptocracy has virtually impoverished everyone and must be removed by force.

- the degree to which opportunity is actually accessible to all. This is tied directly to the one I mentioned previously. We could tie ourselves in knots trying to determine how much self-efficacy any given adult individual has in America. But I think we can make some pretty assumptions based on a lot of very predictive data. The degree of efficacy results directly from an individual's human and social capital.

This however, would contradict your statement: "a middle class existence is within the grasp of everyone with a reasonable enough intelligence level." Clearly, the poor are not of below-average intelligence, at least to the degree to which their income is reflective of any marginal lower IQ.

The real problem lies not in IQ, but one's ability to realize their potential. To do this requires bringing all of the faculties to bear necessary to make the choices that will lead to success. For example, being in excellent shape is within most people's grasp. Yet why aren't they? It isn't that they are stupid. There are just too many competing factors involved in maintaining an excellent health regiment.

Returning to the larger issue of income, people are similarly confined by their capacity for self-realization. Yet this confinement is far more extensive and multi-faceted than mere habits of diet and exercise. For starters, there is a very close link between high school graduation rates and income. It isn't causal - it is certainly possible to be successful despite dropping out of school. But what the link does is point to the incredible power of other indicators that have already begun to act before citizens reach adulthood, and yet have effects that last their entire lives.

People simply do not magically invent their own capacity for habits of mind, etc. that allow them to succeed. These are skills that they have been able to develop over years, and upon adulthood can begin to leverage into success.

Now, it is all well and good to acknowledge this, and then seek ways of increasing agency in society, whether through cultural change, government intervention - whatever. But there are also systematic barriers - "channels" if you will - that provide sort of invisible scaffolding that allows some to reach higher, and leaves others more greatly marginalized and with fewer options.

So, these would basically fall into the realm of social capital. But, as opposed to structures like family or culture, which can be influenced by society at large, these would rather be more infrastructural, and within the larger designs of what kind of society we want to create.

One of the largest, most problematic of these structures is the unintended result of our system of property, specifically property values. What ends up happening is a clustering effect which ultimately has a profound impact not only on individual communities but society at large. When you have large degrees of inequality between neighborhood property values, you get communities with large disparities in human capital. In the rich neighborhoods you get selection for relatively well-adjusted*, motivated, educated, knowledgeable, intact families, etc. - basically high levels of social capital. Yet each point of social capital is not static. They build exponentially, leveraging one and another to to create a sum vastly more useful than its parts.

You can see where this goes with poor communities, where the same holds true, yet in reverse. There is a relative lack of social capital - education, worldly knowledge, motivation, psychodynamic integrity (mental illness, dysfunction,), etc., and each individual piece leverages against one another, building exponentially until the results become catastrophic. This snowballing of capital disadvantage has an overall effect of placing an active downward pressure on communities. Not only are there practical, day-to-day effects on activities, but stress levels increase, contributing to health and behavioral problems. If you think losing weight is difficult, try doing it with massive increases in stress hormones due to not being able to afford rent, getting laid off, your car breaking down, your kids fighting at school, your boyfriend running out on you, etc., etc. Any single lack in social capital advantage becomes extra burdensome in the presence of an overall lack. Whereas something like drug addiction or abuse in a wealthy community can be lessened in its destructive power by the presence of family cohesion, financial stability, in the absence of social supports, it can have much more dire consequences.

Of course, these are extremes. Most of us fall somewhere in between, possessing some mixture of the above. But this does not make any of the elements of social capital any less crucial to the understanding of how "opportunity" works.

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